Loving Our Neighbor

Loving Our Neighbor

Over the past year, we’ve noted on a number of occasions that if we were asked to summarize the teaching of the 39 books of the Old Testament in a nutshell we would do well to use the summary Jesus himself taught, namely: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself—otherwise known as the Greatest Commandment since this is the question posed to Jesus in Matthew 22 when he provides this answer: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (36) In our account of the Good Samaritan this morning, we have an opportunity to consider how Jesus teases out this teaching in a very practical manner. For it’s one thing to say we’re to love God and neighbor. But what does loving our neighbor in particular actually look like?

The snapshot we have this morning is a common one in Jesus’ life. An “expert in the law”—in other words, someone well-versed in what Scripture, or our Old Testament, teaches—asked Jesus a question I imagine most of us have thought about at some point in our lives, namely, how can we escape death, or, as he put it, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (25). A variation of this question is what first led me to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 18. I wondered about—and feared—what would happen when we die and when I learned that Jesus testified about himself, “25 I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,”[1] I gave my life over to following him. So for anyone who has ever considered how fleeting our earthly lives are—which is all of us—there’s probably no more important question than that being asked by this expert in the law.

Jesus, knowing his audience, that is, knowing that this man by his training is proficient in his knowledge of Scripture, replied by asking, “What is written in the Law?….How do you read it?” (26). At least in theory Jesus and this law expert are standing on equal ground. Both of them accept Scripture as their authority—which is another way of saying that both of them accept that because God is the source of all Scripture, we are bound to follow its teaching. So Jesus encouraged this expert to share his knowledge of the Old Testament.

And what may have precipitated the law expert’s original question is that just prior to this—at least in Matthew’s version of this account[2]—Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, who had nonetheless asked him about whom a hypothetical woman—who had married seven brothers consecutively—would be married to at the resurrection. By way of answer Jesus pointed out that they didn’t know the Scriptures nor the power of God since in heaven there isn’t marriage and, more importantly, that the one true God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not the God of dead but of the living. Therefore though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, they continued to live unto the God who had given them life—his life—eternal life. Another detail provided by Matthew is this: “34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’” So this detail casts the whole encounter between Jesus and the law expert—a Pharisee—in a slightly different light for as we’ve seen before, the Pharisees often challenged Jesus and his teaching.

Now when Jesus threw the law expert’s question back to him to answer for himself, the law expert didn’t disappoint. He demonstrated his expertise by providing a correct answer to his own question. The way to inherit eternal life is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” This first part of the Greatest Commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5. It’s part of a teaching that God gives to his people by means of his servant, Moses[3] and it immediately follows what is known as the shema, from the Hebrew word “hear” which states, “Hear [Shema] O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” So immediately after stating this key tenet indicating God’s nature—that he alone is God and that he is one—he then exhorts his people to love him for he has created us for relationship with himself.

The second part of the Greatest Commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (27) comes from Leviticus 19:18. The full verse states “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The context here is that of spelling out what love to one’s neighbor looks like and includes important principles such as leaving gleanings of the harvest for the poor and the foreigner (9–10), not stealing or lying (11), not defrauding or robbing your neighbor or holding back wages from a hired worker, (13) not cursing someone who is deaf or putting a stumbling block before someone who is blind (14), not perverting justice by showing partiality to the great or poor, but treating your neighbor fairly (15). And this consideration is to be extended not only to fellow Israelites but also to foreigners as verse 34 goes on to state and reiterate, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” All of these laws found in the Old Testament, which we tend to assume are the opposite of love are, in fact, illustrations of what loving someone looks like. To love someone requires having compassion for them, and being conscientious in our dealings with them, and being fair in the ways in which we treat them. The law expert engaging with Jesus knew the Scriptures so when he answered his own question with this God-ward and other-ward summary, Jesus affirmed his reply: “You have answered correctly…. Do this and you will live.”[4] Now this should have been end of story. But it wasn’t.

In verse 29 we’re told that the law expert “wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Now part of what may be behind this request for further clarification is that the second half of the Greatest Commandment is a variation of another of Jesus’ teaching that has come to be known as the Golden Rule: “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).[5] In this version, all others are included. But if instead of “others” the word “neighbor” is used in the Greatest Commandment, then perhaps we’re off the hook. “Others” would imply all others; but “neighbors” sounds more limited. Perhaps we don’t need to treat everyone as we would like to be treated. It would take a lot of work to do as much for everyone else as we would like everyone else to do for us. But if we could just be concerned about our “neighbor” surely that would be more manageable. It would be far easier to be kind and sacrificial towards those living in our immediate vicinity than to be kind and sacrificial towards everyone we might encounter! So it’s possible that this law expert was trying to exclude responsibility for all others by considering some people as “non-neighbors.”

But I also think there may be something else going on in the law expert’s reply. Why does it state that he wanted to “justify” himself? This seems an unusual response. Why would he need justifying? Why would he need to show or prove himself to right or reasonable? I suspect it’s because, as Jesus so easily demonstrated, this law expert had asked Jesus a question he obviously knew the answer to even before he asked it. This question was probably part of the catechesis in which he had been trained. So even before he had stood to ask Jesus this question about what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus—and any others present who were familiar with Scripture—all would have known that eternal life comes from knowing and loving God and others.

So all of this may be part of the background as to why the law expert felt the need to justify himself. This may be why he felt he had to save face—because he had asked a question whose answer would have been obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Scripture, much less an expert in Old Testament teaching. Eternal life comes from knowing and loving God. And the evidence that we know and love God is that we love our neighbor even as God does. It’s not complicated.

Still, Jesus played along with the law expert when he went on to ask “And who is my neighbor?” (29). Instead of answering directly, Jesus answered, as he so often did, with a parable that would yet again demonstrate that this law expert was pretending to be ignorant of Scriptural teaching while actually knowing what the Scriptures taught. In this story, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho [~ an 18-mile descent][6] when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead” (30). Now this isn’t a far-fetched story. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho included long stretches of rocky terrain that drew robbers seeking to steal from those who were traveling alone. And sadly, the poor man in the story wasn’t only robbed, but was also stripped of his clothes, beat up, and left half dead.

The first person who came upon him should have been viewed as an angel in disguise for he was a priest, a descendant from the tribe of Aaron—a man called to minister to God’s people in God’s name, an expert in the law, just like the law expert who was questioning Jesus. What perfect timing that he should come upon this poor man who had been robbed and beaten! But the priest didn’t act as one would expect. Instead of being moved by compassion, the priest, upon seeing the beaten man, “passed by on the other side” (31). He wanted nothing to do with this poor man.

But all hope wasn’t lost for a Levite, in other words a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi that provided assistants to the priests in Jewish temple worship, also came by. Being a religious man, the expectation once again is that he would provide help. But once again his behavior ends up being inconsistent with his position for “when he came to the place and saw [the beaten man—the man who had been stripped, robbed, and left half dead, he], passed by on the other side” (32). The priest and Levite, by calling at least, should have had a reputation for being good people. They knew God’s Word. They were called to minister in God’s name. Yet both of them closed their eyes to a suffering fellow human being, to one made in the image of the God they claimed to serve, and passed by on the other side of the road.

Now in Jewish tradition, a common trilogy was “priest, Levite, and people” so when Jesus’ audience heard first about a “priest” and then a “Levite,” they would have expected the third traveler in the parable to be a “people” or a lay Jewish believer.[7] So to have the third traveler be a Samaritan, a group hated by established Jewish believers, would have been shocking. Much like practicing Christians sometimes use the term “worldly Christians” to refer to those who are living according to society’s values rather than Scripture, the Samaritans would have been considered “worldly Jews” by practicing Jews. In the case of the Samaritans, because historically they had intermarried with people of other nations and, consequently, ended up following other gods than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,—think of how even Israel was drawn to Baal worship in the time of Elijah—practicing Jews had no dealings with them. If you’ll recall the account of the Woman at the Well in the fourth chapter of John, though she is a woman of ill repute, the reason she is surprised that Jesus takes the time to talk with her and ask her for some water initially isn’t because of her poor morals, but because she is a Samaritan—and Jesus is Jewish. The ninth verse records her surprise: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” So there was a long-standing animosity between the allegedly “good” Jews and the “worldly” Jews, or Samaritans, who were considered to have compromised the Jewish faith and practice.

And yet, in Jesus’ telling, it’s a Samaritan who does the right thing. When he came upon the beaten man, we’re told, “he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey—[since the man was apparently too injured to walk on his own]—brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii—[a denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer]—and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” This Samaritan of questionable religious pedigree—at least historically; at least in the eyes of the Sadducees and Pharisees who were present—was the only one who did the right thing. And even the law expert who had questioned Jesus had to admit this. When Jesus asked him, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (36), “[t]he expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’” And “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (37).

“Go and do likewise.” This is now the second time in this passage that we’ve seen Jesus making this statement. The first was in verse 28 when the law expert correctly answered that in order to inherit eternal life, we must love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. And now here Jesus makes clear that we are also called to be a neighbor—to have mercy—on all people and not simply upon those we know.

So is Jesus teaching that we can earn our way to heaven? That the way to escape death—or, to use the law expert’s terminology, that the way to inherit life is by doing good works? I don’t think so because inheriting eternal life begins with knowing God—who is life and who desires to give his life to all who would receive it. There is only one true God: Hear, O Israel—Hear, O Linebrook Church—the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And, knowing this, this one true God calls us not only to know him but to love him—to be in relationship with him—for this is the reason we’ve been created: not only to know and love him during the earthly part of our sojourn, but to know and love him for all eternity.

But another lesson to be gleaned from this passage is that orthodoxy—right belief—alone isn’t enough. Or, to put it another way, true religion isn’t simply knowing about our faith. The priest and the Levite in the parable were people of faith who didn’t act according to their faith. Orthodoxy—right belief—must be demonstrated by Orthopraxy—right living. This is illustrated so beautifully in Jesus’ parable when the Samaritan, whose faith would have been suspect in the eyes of Jesus’ audience, was the one who did the right thing in taking care of this poor, beaten man whom he didn’t know. James, Jesus’ brother, makes this very point when he writes in the second chapter of his epistle,

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

So it isn’t the case that we can be saved by our deeds—that we can inherit eternal life by our deeds—but rather if we truly know God—if we truly love God, this will be evidenced in the way we seek to live our lives. We will love our neighbor. We will be living according to his nature and character, selflessly, not selfishly. Providing and caring for others even as he provides and cares for us.

But I think that in addition to orthodoxy—right belief—and orthopraxy—right living—knowing and loving God will lead to orthopathy—right feeling. When the priest and Levite saw the man who had been robbed, they passed by on the other side of the road. They had hard hearts. But when the Samaritan saw the man, he had compassion; he took pity on him. He had a soft heart. To be trained in godliness is to be trained in becoming like God—holding to his values and teaching, living sacrificially as Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for us, and feeling compassion and mercy especially for those who can’t help themselves, even as he has expressed his compassion and mercy towards us and died for us even when we were yet sinners. True Christianity isn’t just about knowing God’s Word—it’s about living God’s Word—and it’s about thinking God’s thoughts after him—it’s about feeling God’s feelings after him.

As the events in Dallas this past week illustrate—as well as the shocking events that led to them—it’s all too easy for us to develop an “us versus them” mentality when we judge by skin color or profession or a myriad of other categories we formulate to determine who is our friend vs. who is our enemy. But God calls us to live not according to our society’s values but his values. And this we cannot do unless we first know him. This we cannot do unless we first love him. And he’s given us his written Word in the Old and New Testament to this very end—that we might know his will and his ways. But he’s also given us himself, his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the only way for us to know him—for Jesus and the Father are one. Therefore to know Jesus is to know God. And to those who have come to know the Father by means of his Son, he’s also given us his Holy Spirit who now indwells us and helps us live the life he’s called us to live.

Brothers and sisters, let’s not take this call for granted but let us love God well by loving each other well.

Let’s not take this call for granted but let us remember that every person we encounter—whether young or old, American or foreigner, of our race or another race, of our faith or another faith or no faith—is our neighbor. For every person we encounter is one who has been made in the image of the one true God and therefore is someone we should seek to know—and care for—and have compassion upon. Let us not pass by on the other side as the priest and Levite did but let us should look upon every person we encounter as our neighbor—as one whom God loves—as one for whom Christ died. So this morning and every day, let us “Go and do likewise” as we seek to love God with all of heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let us pray.



[1] John 11:25–26.

[2] Matthew 22:23–33.

Deuteronomy 6:1–8: [3] These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.


[4] In Mark’s (12) account, it’s Jesus who summarizes the Law and the Prophets, not the law expert. Too, Mark doesn’t go on to record the Parable of the Good Samaritan but rather he ends the passage by recording the response of the teacher of the law to Jesus—and Jesus’ response to him: 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” Mark’s account also records the Sadducees question about the resurrection of the dead.

[5] Parallel in Luke 6:31: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

[6] ESV.

[7] Beale/Carson, eds. New Testament Use of the Old Testament, pp. 321–322.

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